"I'd have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he's not around right now to talk to."
That was one of the closing lines from Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia and secretary of the Navy, in Tuesday's first Democratic presidential primary debate. It was certainly his most memorable, anyway.
His answer came in response to a question about political enemies he's made. Here's his exact answer, delivered with an undeniable smirk:
Some have reported Webb's comments as saying that he killed the man, though Webb doesn't appear to have claimed that exactly or stated it so plainly.
Either way, the immediate aftermath of his comment earned some ridicule on Twitter and late night. His son, an Iraq War veteran also named Jim Webb, found his father's actions in combat anything but funny. He wrote an op-ed published in The Washington Post's military blog, Checkpoint, on Thursday saying, "If anything, his blunt (and perhaps a bit brutal) honesty was much appreciated, and further endeared him to us as a candidate."
The story begs for context, and the Military Times has a record of when Webb received his Navy Cross for his action on a fateful July 1969 day in Vietnam, deep in hostile territory (relevant section bolded):
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant James H. Webb, Jr. (MCSN: 0-106180), United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving as a Platoon Commander with Company D, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division (Reinforced), Fleet Marine Force, in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 10 July 1969, while participating in a company-sized search and destroy operation deep in hostile territory, First Lieutenant Webb's platoon discovered a well-camouflaged bunker complex which appeared to be unoccupied. Deploying his men into defensive positions, First Lieutenant Webb was advancing to the first bunker when three enemy soldiers armed with hand grenades jumped out. Reacting instantly, he grabbed the closest man and, brandishing his .45 caliber pistol at the others, apprehended all three of the soldiers. Accompanied by one of his men, he then approached the second bunker and called for the enemy to surrender. When the hostile soldiers failed to answer him and threw a grenade which detonated dangerously close to him, First Lieutenant Webb detonated a claymore mine in the bunker aperture, accounting for two enemy casualties and disclosing the entrance to a tunnel. Despite the smoke and debris from the explosion and the possibility of enemy soldiers hiding in the tunnel, he then conducted a thorough search which yielded several items of equipment and numerous documents containing valuable intelligence data. Continuing the assault, he approached a third bunker and was preparing to fire into it when the enemy threw another grenade. Observing the grenade land dangerously close to his companion, First Lieutenant Webb simultaneously fired his weapon at the enemy, pushed the Marine away from the grenade, and shielded him from the explosion with his own body. Although sustaining painful fragmentation wounds from the explosion, he managed to throw a grenade into the aperture and completely destroy the remaining bunker. By his courage, aggressive leadership, and selfless devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Webb upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.
Webb shared more details of the incident in a 2007 Rolling Stone profile:
"Nine days later, Webb was leading his platoon toward what he thought was an empty complex of bunkers. As he and his men approached, three Viet Cong soldiers jumped out. Webb grabbed one and drew his .45 on the other two, capturing all three. Webb and another soldier moved on to a second bunker; this time, a grenade sprayed him with shrapnel, but he detonated a claymore at the bunker's entrance, killing two Viet Cong. Webb kept going, approaching a third bunker, where another grenade detonated. Webb shot the Viet Cong who threw it and hurled himself in front of his Marine, absorbing the brunt of the blast. Even then he kept fighting, lobbing another grenade into the bunker, killing the last of his enemies.
In his mind, it was the compression of his past into a moment of perfect, unthinking violence, redeeming all the history that had put him opposite a stranger and a grenade on the opposite side of the world."
Webb writes in his 2014 memoir, "I Heard My Country Calling," he spent close to a year in "the blood-soaked, infamous battlefields known as the An Hoa Basin." In the book he shares many gruesome battles, particularly the one mentioned above:
"I was hit by two enemy grenades while clearing a series of well-camouflaged bunkers. The bunkers were built insider bamboo thicket, at the edge of a murky streambed.
The first grenade peppered me lightly on the face and shoulders. The second detonated behind me just after I shot the man who threw it and a second soldier who was inside the same bunker. I was hit in the head, back, arm, and leg. The grenade’s concussion lifted me into the air and threw me down a hill into the stream. I still carry shrapnel at the base of my skull and in one kidney from the blast. But the square, quarter-size piece that scored the inside of my left knee joint and lodged against the bone of my lower leg would eventually change the direction of my life."
The experience has understandably stuck with him. The former journalist and New York Times bestselling novelist broke out his fiction pen this summer for the first time since 2001 to write "To Kill A Man: A Short Story."
The opening lines read:
“Did you ever kill anybody, Grandpa?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you feel bad about it?”
“We can talk about that later.”
In his memoir, Webb shares his frustration with serving and being put in dangerous situations, ostensibly like the one above:
"It is difficult for many Americans to fully comprehend the impact of what it means to take the oath to defend our country and then put on a military uniform. From the moment you enter the military until the day you leave it, every aspect of your life is under the control of others. ...
You will be legally obligated to carry out the orders of those in charge of you, whether or not you agree with the wisdom of those orders. This includes the distinct possibility that even against your own better judgment you might be placed in a situation in which you will get injured, blown up, or shot."
Webb's injuries eventually forced him to leave the Marine Corps. He wrote in his memoir how disorienting that was:
"I was staring down an emotional cliff into the vast unknown of peace, in a country that was tearing itself apart because of the war in which I had fought."
Today, his presidential candidacy is a long shot. But it's worth noting that we have previous presidents who have been in hand-to-hand combat and have killed.
According to Cecil Adams, the writer of the syndicated online column The Straight Dope, these four presidents also have killed: Andrew Jackson (a duel), Grover Cleveland (hanging criminals as sheriff of Erie County in New York), Teddy Roosevelt (firing at Spanish troops as a Rough Rider in Cuba during the Spanish-American War), and George Washington (allegedly ambushing a French military detachment).
This post has been updated.